Religion, politics...and homework

Few issues can lead to all hell breaking loose in a household like discussions about these three topics.

kids with books 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kids with books 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israelis discuss passionately emotionally charged issues such as religion, politics and... homework.
Homework? Homework might not seem to rise to the level of an emotionally charged issue, but for parents with school-age children, homework is one of the few issues where home life is directly affected by decisions made in school, and school life is similarly affected by what happens at home. One of many parents’ major complaints about school is the amount of homework given to their children.
Even within the education community, there are many who question the value of homework.
Sara Bennett’s and Nancy Kalish’s 2006 book, The Case Against Homework debunks the myth that giving kids homework improves their educational outcome. Much of the homework we give children serves no educational purpose.
There is, however, one principle that no one can reasonably debate: Students hurt themselves when homework is assigned and they do not do it. Their grades may suffer if homework is involved in determining them.
The attitude of the teacher can be negatively affected. And such students might not understand the following day’s lesson, thus falling further behind. There are enough students in Israel who refuse to do their homework to the point where their education is at risk.
A major part of the problem is the difference between finishing homework and learning from it.
Obviously, completing assignments without learning from the experience is useless. This devalues learning for the student and builds negative attitudes about school.
Thus, pressure – the most common method of convincing students to do homework – is counterproductive.
Techniques such as coercion, threats, rewards and punishments might result in some students completing assignments. I believe we need to reach a higher standard: students actually learning from their assignments. In a few cases, simply completing without learning might be a reasonable goal. These cases include students with special needs.
There are several ways to increase the rate of homework completion, ways involving changes in the way the school assigns homework and changes in the way parents encourage their children to do it.
Let’s first look at what the school can do. Why not offer students more choices? Choices give students a feeling of control, but also require that they behave responsibly. The more real the choice, the greater the investment by the student to honor it. It is a very powerful tool.
There are two types of choices that can be utilized in homework. The first is allowing students to choose which questions to answer, between a third and a half. This gives the students a feeling of control, as well as cutting back on the teacher’s time spent correcting it. Ironically students typically answer all the questions in the process.
The second way to utilize choice is to allow the class to decide which days they have homework. Giving students a choice of days once again increases their control, and lets them plan their time more effectively.
Both forms of choice increase the chance that students will complete their assignments. They offer control, inherent fairness and proportionality (a reasonable amount of homework given).
CONDITIONS AT home can also have a powerful effect on whether or not homework gets done. We all know that the resistance to doing something we’d rather not do is mostly manifest in getting started.
Think of any project around the house, from doing dishes to organizing a closet. It is hard to start, but once we get going, we usually finish.
The following suggestions are designed to set optimal conditions for starting: • Set up a homework area. This is ideally a well-lit, comfortable space with a desk or table outside the flow of traffic. Allow minimal snacking; a glass of milk or juice might be all that’s needed. Minimize distractions.
Do not allow other family members in the area during homework time.
• For most students, the television should be off. If friends call or visit, they should be told that the child is not available at this time and when they can return the call or visit.
Music is okay if the child works better when listening.
• Set a regular time. Homework works best when it begins at the same time every night, but for many homes that’s not possible. In that case, try for the same time each Monday, Tuesday, etc.
• Require the student to sit at the work area for the amount of time required. For example, if there is an hour’s worth of homework, the child sits for an hour. This requires some communication between the teacher and parent to determine how much time is needed. Obviously the time allotted is a guess, but when the teacher and parent work together, most guesses become accurate.
If the student is doing homework in more than one subject, pick one to start with • The parent need not insist the child do any work; just sit for the allotted time with the school materials and proper supplies. This strategy works on two levels. First, most kids would rather do anything than nothing; homework is better than boredom. Second, as I have previously noted, doing homework is not the biggest problem; starting it is. Once a child begins, he or she is likely to continue unless there is a learning or clarity problem. As long as they have to sit there, eventually they learn that they might as well finish their assignments. Different students learn this lesson at different speeds, so don’t give up too soon.
THESE CONDITIONS maximize the odds that a child will get into the habit of doing homework on a regular basis. For those who do not have parental supervision to establish this pattern, setting up homework study groups with three or four children at a home with a volunteer parent is a wonderful substitute. If that’s not possible, perhaps the school can establish homework study clubs after school or during the day with the help of willing teachers or elderly volunteers. This works best when students choose to attend, rather than when their attendance is mandatory.
These suggestions are a starting point not only for increasing homework completion, but also for increasing learning and allowing the removal of barriers that inhibit these goals.
Now all we need are some answers to religion and politics.
The writer is a professor of education at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and the author of 20 books on issues related to behavior, discipline and motivation.